Experts eye militia groups as a growing threat

Anti-government groups — like one in southwest Ohio which has two members facing federal charges that they stormed the U.S. Capitol — have been growing for the past decade.

Organizers of some of the groups say they are focused on community service and preparing to assist during times of national or local emergency. But members of such groups are also facing charges for participating in the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol and experts fear participation in such groups could grow during a Democratic president’s term, as it has in the past.

The Oath Keepers are one of 32 anti-government groups listed as operating in Ohio in the most recent report from the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Jessica Watkins and Donovan Crowl, both of Champaign County, are accused of working with an Oath Keepers leader from Virginia and others to storm the Capitol on Jan. 6 with a mob intent of stopping Congress from certifying the electoral college votes from this past November’s election.

The Oath Keepers operate across Ohio and the nation and are one of the nation’s most prominent anti-government groups, according to the SPLC. Federal charging documents call the Oath Keepers a “large but loosely organized collection of militia,” and allege Crowl and Watkins were also part of a local group called the Ohio State Regular Militia.

A former member of the OSRM, who spoke to reporters on the agreement that their name not be used, said Watkins was commanding officer of the local group. The person said they did not think Watkins went to Washington with the intention of storming the Capitol.

“I do not believe she intended that whatsoever,” the former member said. “I think the overwhelming majority of people were as surprised to find themselves walking into the Capitol as everyone else looking on the outside was.”

The former member said the group that went was intending to offer protection to “VIPs” such as members of Congress who supported not certifying the election results.

The Ohio State Regular Militia was formed in 2019 and members intended to offer aid in times of natural disaster or civil unrest, the former member said. Some members went to Columbus during the Black Lives Matter protests and provided medical assistance to some of the protesters.

“I feel like the OSRM had good goals to start out with and I think if close to half our membership didn’t get caught up in the hype and foul-up then we would have just tried to continue to do things when those kinds of bad thing happened, because whether you got a big government or small government natural disasters still stress things, civil unrest when it happens still stresses things.”

A web archive of what federal prosecutors say is Watkins’ OSRM page on the social media site Parler includes images of Watkins and others in D.C. Some of the images and comments are referenced in the federal affadavit.

“Yeah. We stormed the Capitol today. Teargassed, the whole, 9. Pushed our way into the Rotunda. Made it into the Senate even. The news is lying (even Fox) about the Historical Events we created today,” says one post on the account the FBI attributes to Watkins.

“We never smashed anything, stole anything, burned anything, and truthfully we were very respectful with Capitol Hill PD until they attacked us. Then we stood out (sic) ground and drew the line,” says another comment.

The top of the Parler page says: “We are a group that is sworn to defend the Constitution. We are NOT anti-government. We do not allow any intolerance or extremism. We Back the Blue!”

The Oath Keepers

Prosecutors refer to the OSRM as a subsidiary of the Oath Keepers. The former member said some of their members belonged to both organizations but there was no official relationship.

The Oath Keepers claim to have tens of thousands of members nationwide. They focus on enlisting current and former members of the military and first responders. Their name stems from the oath servicemembers take to protect the Constitution from enemies foreign and domestic.

Watkins is reportedly an Army veteran and Crowl a Marine Corps veteran.

Ohio National Guard spokeswoman Stephanie Beougher would not comment on the Oath Keepers specifically, but said there are prohibitions of active duty members “participating in any extremist organizations or criminal gangs.”

“If Service members violate these prohibitions, they could face the full range of criminal and administrative sanctions, including disciplinary and administrative action such as separation from the military,” she said.

The same prohibitions extend to members of other branches of the armed services, according to Air Force officials.

The SPLC calls the Oath Keepers “one of the largest radical anti-government groups in the U.S. today.”

“While it claims only to be defending the Constitution, the entire organization is based on a set of baseless conspiracy theories about the federal government working to destroy the liberties of Americans,” the SPLC says.

Militia groups growth

Vaughn Shannon, a political science professor at Wright State University who specializes in terrorism, said the actions of some of the people on Jan. 6 meets the definition of terrorism: violence towards a political end.

Terrorism experts say right-wing terrorism is a growing threat in the U.S. The Center for Strategic and International Studies reports that between 1994 and 2020 there were 893 terrorist attacks and plots in the U.S. Right-wing terrorists perpetrated 57 percent of them, followed by 25 percent by left-wing terrorists and 15 percent by religious terrorists.

Anti-government extremism typically expands during Democratic administrations and wanes under Republicans. The Oath Keepers were founded in 2009 in response to the election of Barack Obama. But Shannon said Trump emboldened and legitimized such groups, so they atypically stayed more active and visible during his four years in office.

“Trump made it OK to kind of come out more publicly so they’ve kind of flourished under the Trump administration,” he said.

He expects the public and law enforcement backlash about the Capitol riot will push them back underground.

“I think they’re going to be back in hiding, and that is part of the dance,” he said. “They will be in their chatrooms, just not Twitter anymore.”

A spokesperson with the Anti-Defamation League said the federal government “will almost certainly become the enemy of the militia movement once more.”

“Already they believe and have been spreading the idea that President Joe Biden is a usurper and that he is only in office because the left ‘stole’ the 2020 election. This narrative could potentially become an important tool for the militia movement as they seek to attract recruits from disaffected Trump supporters.

“It could also potentially be used by some to justify violent action by framing themselves as ‘Patriots’ resisting an illegitimate government.”

After Wednesday’s inauguration, Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes in an interview on the talk show Infowars said the group’s members should refuse to acknowledge the legitimacy of the Biden administration, raise local militias and “prepare to defend yourselves.”

He also accused Trump of “dereliction of duty” for not using the Insurrection Act to stop the election.

Local militia leader seeks other path

One militia group listed on the Southern Poverty Law Center report as an anti-government group is the Last Ohio Militia, which operates in Montgomery County and across southwest Ohio.

Last Ohio Militia founder Walt Simms, of Fairfield, said in an interview last week they are a “survivalist prepper group,” and not anti-government.

Credit: Contributed

Credit: Contributed

They wear camouflage and shoot guns in the woods — and joke about the “zombie apocalypse” — and talk about being prepared if society collapses. But don’t advocate political violence.

“Primarily we’re a brotherhood, we teach each other our skill sets, and we’re there for each other during the good times and the bad times,” he said. “We also prepare for rough times, tornadoes, hurricanes, civil uprisings and things like that. We want to make sure we protect each other.”

Last year, about 50 members of the group put on a July 4 parade in Hamilton after the city cancelled theirs. Many of the members openly displayed firearms. The group’s motto is “molon labe,” which is Greek for “come and take them” — a reference to defending the 2nd Amendment.

The group was incorporated in 2012.

The militia’s website refers to themselves as a “private men’s only club.”

“The decision was made not to be solely a militant group but they want the organization to be involved in politics and family needs as well,” the site says.

Simms said today there are more than 300 members in Ohio and chapters in other states and countries. He said their members are involved in politics — and mostly conservative — but the group itself is not political.

Simms personally doesn’t support Biden but he concedes Biden won the election and condemns the Jan. 6 storming of the capitol.

“That’s not something we should do,” he said. “We are a nation of laws and civil discourse and we need to keep doing that.”

“We know (the word militia) got a bad name for such a long time we wanted to make an organization that brought that name back from the fringe element,” he said.

Champaign County neighbors react

Concerns about the Biden administration are common in Champaign County, where 73% of voters backed Trump in the November election. As Biden took the oath of office Wednesday, Trump yard signs and flags were numerous.

No one answered the door to reporters at the listed address for Crowl in Urbana. Neighbors said they sympathized with his dislike for Biden, but not with storming the Capitol. Some expressed doubt that the Capitol rioters were Trump supporters despite the evidence from the social-media posts of the participants themselves.

Cheryl Booth, who works at Café Paradiso in downtown Urbana, said she had never heard of local militia groups. She estimates 80 percent of her patrons are Republicans and support Trump.

“But I don’t think they’re vandals or skinheads or that kind of thing. I think they have common sense and do things the right way,” she said. “I’m a Republican and I did vote for Trump and I do think he has done good things and everything, but I think there’s a way to do things and it’s not to be storming places and acting like fools.”

The same sentiment was echoed in the small village of Woodstock, in northeast Champaign County, where Watkins lived above a bar she co-owned called the Jolly Roger.

Credit: Bill Lackey

Credit: Bill Lackey

A man who identified himself as co-owner of the Jolly Roger declined to speak to reporters.

Neighbors said Watkins and the other owner took over the bar in 2019 and have been fixing it up, including putting on a new roof. The bar doesn’t have a sign and is one of only a couple businesses in the village of a couple hundred people. It’s at the only intersection in town with a street light, across from a shuttered general store building that is for sale.

Victoria Loy saw the FBI raid of the bar from her window down the street, which she said was filled with police and FBI; military-looking men with laser sights reflecting off the windows; flash-bangs that sounded like gunshots. A loudspeaker repeatedly commanded them to open up.

Credit: Bill Lackey

Credit: Bill Lackey

Watkins wasn’t there and later turned herself in at the Urbana police department, according to charging documents.

Loy, who has two young children, was concerned to read that federal authorities allege that they found directions on making explosives in Watkins’ house. “It just shows you don’t know your neighbors,” Loy said.

Loy said everyone she knows in the village supported Trump, but not the storming of the Capitol. She wasn’t aware of any local militia groups.

“The biggest thing for me is I’m for free speech and people to protest for what they believe,” she said, “but not when it comes to violence because then your message just goes out the window when violence is entered.”

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